Wet Brain Syndrome: Symptoms and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : January 03, 
| 4 Sources

Korsakoff Psychosis
Korsakoff's Syndrome
Wernicke Encephalopathy

Wet brain syndrome is actually two illnesses; Korsakoff psychosis and Wernicke encephalopathy.
It is fatal in 20% of cases.

Here are four simple facts:

  • Alcohol is toxic to the brain.
  • It kills brain cells resulting in brain damage.
  • In the end stage of alcoholism, alcoholic dementia is relatively common.
  • While in a minority of cases, Wet Brain Syndrome can develop [1]

It's as straightforward as that.

However, if an alcoholic abstains from alcohol then alcohol dementia can be halted and, in many cases, reversed.

This, unfortunately is NOT the case with Wet Brain Syndrome (Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome).

If caught early enough it can be treated and a full recovery can occur. But if allowed to progress it will cause permanent brain damage and can kill (about 20% of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome sufferers will die from the condition)[2]

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Wet Brain Syndrome: What is It?

Wet Brain Syndrome is actually two disorders - Wernicke Encephalopathy and Korsakoff Psychosis. They can appear together or independently.

Both of these illnesses are caused by a lack of thiamine [3] (vitamin B-1).

There are three reasons as to why thiamine deficiency occurs in alcoholics:

  1. Alcohol inhibits the absorption of thiamine
  2. Usually alcoholics are so focused on the consumption of alcohol that they neglect their diets. This results in them not getting enough thimaine
  3. Alcohol likewise causes diminished thiamine utilization in the cells.

Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke encephalopathy causes brain damage in the lower parts of the brain. This is the acute phase. Symptoms can include:

  • Wernicke Encephalopathy

    This is the acute phase. Symptoms can include:

      -a staggering gait (not unlike the walk of someone intoxicated),

      -difficulty swallowing,

      -speech problems,

      -disturbed eye movements

      -and mental confusion.
    If these symptoms are ignored and the alcoholic continues to drink then the next, chronic, stage appears.....
  • Korsakoff Psychosis

    This is the chronic phase of the Syndrome. Symptoms can include:

      -An inability to remember the recent past, although long term memory might be perfect.

      -Sometimes someone with Korsakoff Psychosis might not even have long term memories. A total shutdown of memory.

      -Fabrication. Because the sufferer can't remember anything they will make up stories to fill in the gaps. They are not exactly "lying" but might actually believe their confabulate explanations.

      -Unable to engage in meaningful dialog.

      -Apathy, sufferers lose interest in things quickly and generally appear indifferent to change.

Prognosis of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Majority of the symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy can be reversed if detected and treated early and completely. Avoiding alcohol consumption could prevent further brain and nerve damage. Nonetheless, improvement in memory function could be slow and, oftentimes, incomplete. Without proper treatment, these disorders could be disabling and even fatal.

Treatment of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

If the syndrome is caught before it has moved into the chronic phase (Korsakoff Psychosis) then it is more than probable that the sufferer will recover.

However, this recovery could take up to a year.

wet brain syndrome Treatment usually involves intravenous thiamine (vitamin B-1)being given to the patient. Sometimes a prolonged stay in hospital is required as the symptoms subside.

Of course, it is essential that alcohol is taken out of the equation, otherwise the syndrome will reappear.

Unfortunately if the syndrome is too far advanced (korsakoff Psychosis) then treatment is limited to halting the progress of the disease with thiamine replacement and abstinence. Symptoms (see above) will remain for the rest of the sufferers life. [5]

If allowed to run its course, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will kill. [6]

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wet-brainPhoto by Wendy Wei

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Medline Plus. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000771.htm

Alzheimer’s Association. Korsakoff Syndrome. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia/types-of-dementia/korsakoff-syndrome

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease. 2003. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/134-142.htm

National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page. March 27, 2019. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Wernicke-Korsakoff-Syndrome-Information-Page

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